Hold the Lions
Guest columnist Ray Bell reflects on the political importance of sporting propaganda and asks: “What one thing does hold the Lions together? A vague Victorian sense of Britishness. And if that’s too subtle for you – why do they play nearly all their games are against former colonies?”
With the current furore over the creation of Team GB – the British Olympic football team – it is about time that a similar institution underwent the same kind of scrutiny. I’m talking of course, of rugby’s British and Irish Lions.
Some might argue I’m picking a soft target here, but I’d argue otherwise. The British Lions rarely get the attention they deserve, and there is an irritating notion that all Scottish rugby fans are somehow silent supporters of the concept. Not so. While many of Scottish rugby’s great and good, the likes of Gavin Hastings and Ian McGeechan, may have got onboard, we still can’t get away from the fact that the Lions are essentially political. Metapolitical perhaps. Maybe it’s the assumption we’re all good Brits together. Maybe it’s the assumption that apartheid was never to be discussed. Maybe it’s the fact that the very first Lions tour to South Africa was underwritten by the white supremacist governor Cecil Rhodes, and it’s been mostly downhill from there…
Of course, rugby’s long had an image problem in Scotland. People assume – wrongly – that it is just a private school game. Well, while there are those who help perpetuate this stereotype – including one or two within the SRU itself – it’s not completely true. Certainly not in the Borders. Nor in dozens of other regions including the Pacific nations, South Wales, Munster & Limerick, or the English West Country…
Because a lot of rugby’s historical problems have usually not been party political, a number of the people involved have either ignored them, or denied that they were political at all. (This includes, incidentally some of the more lukewarm supporters of Scottish independence.) The SRU manufactures consent all the time. It occurs when they parade Princess Anne or the British military around Murrayfield. It has occurred with the British Lions, and not just because they are a Unionist institution either. But then again, clichés and manufactured consent aside, fans of rugby come in all varieties – just most other sports.
All Blacks and Whites Only
The Lions have a fondness for South Africa. Always have done. And why should a little racial segregation get in the way? Their first very official tour went there in 1891 with the full blessing of the RFU, and the kindly backing of Cecil Rhodes who controlled Cape Colony at the time. Obviously Rhodes knew full well what he was doing. The tour would be a good way to attract more loyal white settlers, and not ones of the troublesome Dutch variety either. The team consisted mostly of players from Cambridge University, so there wouldn’t be any trouble that way either. The Lions may have played in Australia and New Zealand, but their heart was in South Africa.
Up until the 1970s, the Lions would also play East Africa, a team which mostly consisted of Kenyan “White Highlanders”, and Rhodesia, the country which Cecil had so humbly named after himself. And so it went, for decades. The Lions played in the most racially segregated countries in English speaking Africa up until 1980. But from the 1960s onwards, other people began to notice. As the sports journalist David Frost (not that one) wrote in his book on rugby touring, No Prisoners (1978):
“For years now the media have been telling us that if we play sport against South Africa we are condoning apartheid. To most sportsmen this is rubbish… If he plays in the USA it does not mean that he approves of the political doctrines of President Carter. I remember one of the leading Lions in New Zealand in 1977 saying… that he would give his right arm to go on another tour of South Africa. The politics of South Africa did not enter his mind.”
Herein lies the problem. The last sentence is not meant to be ironic. It’s probably true. If only politics would enter people’s minds from time to time, the world might be a better place. And how could any intelligent person not notice? Racism went right into the very boardrooms and changing rooms of South African rugby. The whites had their organisation – the South African Rugby Football Union. The blacks had the South African Rugby Board. Completely separate. They would not be merged into the South African Rugby Union (SARU) until the 1990s. The South African regime knew exactly what it was doing. It too was manufacturing consent.
The loudest complaints would come from New Zealand. Not only is rugby their main sport, but many of their best players have been Maori (native NZers). The All Blacks are also arguably the best team in the world. But up until 1970, the South African government refused mixed race teams to play there, and even then under sufferance. This caused massive public outrage. “Halt All Racist Tours” was founded in NZ in 1960, and took as its slogan, “No Maori, No Tour”. The New Zealand anti-apartheid movement ran for nearly thirty years more. It reached a high point in the 80s, when the South Africa match in Auckland was flour bombed from a plane…
Of course, rugby conservatives exonerated SA for years. One of their arguments was that the protestors simply weren’t real fans, just political agitators. (Actually, quite a few people have been both for example Hugh MacDiarmid, Che Guevara, and Éamon de Valera amongst others.
One Lion on the Shirt
The British Lions have often ended up been the kind of nightmare that football fans think Team GB will be. For example, in the current tour, the token Scot is Ian McGeechan – the coach. There are three other Scots on the squad, who have been kept on the bench for several games. Likewise, the 2005 Lions squad consisted of over forty people. Three of whom were Scots. So why exactly does the SRU continue to support the concept? Scottish rugby has been poor over the last few years. But not that poor.
It’s actually part of a pattern. In 1886, Scotland, Wales and Ireland set up the International Rugby Football Board. The English RFU refused to join. Why? Because they insisted on an inbuilt majority. Several years later, they got their wish, and joined. The RFU also opposed a world cup for nearly a century. In 1987, one went ahead anyway. On the other hand, the RFU was extremely hasty in setting up a “British” team, even if it meant excluding the Scots and Irish. It’s an agenda we know well, and not just from rugby either.
As for the arguments trotted out in favour of the Lions…To be fair, when the Lions were set up, at the turn of the 20th century, it was incredibly expensive to tour the Southern Hemisphere. But in the days of the jumbo jet, this no longer holds water. We’re also told it allows us to go up against the Big Boys – aka Aussies, Kiwis and Springboks. Well, a look at the scorecard shows that they get hammered frequently. This argument also has a serious Achilles heel. Why not have a Six Nations team? That would be even stronger, especially with the French aboard. (1) Obviously, one thing does hold the Lions together – a vague Victorian sense of Britishness. And if that’s too subtle for you – why do they play nearly all their games are against former colonies?
The Labour government of 1974 complained about the tour, and even Margaret Thatcher’s government criticised the 1980 tour.
Perhaps Frost did not understand this. His colleagues at the Guardian certainly did, and told him so. He says he even considered resigning over the issue. Nor perhaps did politics enter Frost’s own mind, when he complained about Scottish and Welsh fans booing God Save the Queen, which had been played as their anthem for a number of years. Likewise, the press devoted a good few column inches were also recently devoted to Finlay Calder’s complaint that Flower of Scotland was Anglophobic. But when Calder captained the Lions back in the 1990s, if he ever spoke out against apartheid, it must have slipped most of us by…